A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Study Guide

James Joyce

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How is Stephen similar to and different from his father, Simon Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Stephen bears certain similarities to his father, Simon. For example they both long for a world where the just are rewarded and promoted by their own merit. When Stephen and Simon go back to Cork together, Simon makes a tour of all of his old haunts and steeps himself in rhapsodic remembrances of his school days. Meanwhile Stephen is given to dreamlike trances that include his imagined state of wedded bliss with a childhood sweetheart. Both men also honor Simon's wife in their own ways. Stephen is more directly circumspect around his mother; Simon is devoted because he has to be. However, Stephen can see in his father a warning about his own future. Too much easy talk and drink will lead him to ruin. Stephen's passion for his imagination and his art, and the exile he must impose on himself to honor these things, bring him into sharp conflict with his father. Simon is bound by nationalism, family, and Church. They are also unlike each other in that Simon is not as self-aware as Stephen. Stephen seems to watch himself at every turn, making sure that he has hewn to his role as a young artist.

What role does nationalism play in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Nationalism is one of the forces against which Stephen struggles his entire life. The Catholic Church, to which Stephen considers devoting himself as a priest, is inexorably linked to the government in Ireland, as readers learn at the Christmas dinner scene in Chapter 1. Therefore, a life in the priesthood would represent a tacit endorsement and embrace of the country's values and a deep-rooted patriotism. When Stephen decides to pursue the artistic life over the religious life, his decision is a political as well as an intellectual and spiritual one, as he articulates to Davin and Cranly in their final conversations. He is separating himself from the country of Ireland and those fighting for its independence as well as from its church.

Why do Father Arnall's sermons in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man touch Stephen so deeply?

Father Arnall's sermons touch Stephen deeply for a number of reasons. One is their connection to each other through Clongowes. Father Arnall has been watching over Stephen and keeping him from unjust punishment as best he can. When the priest speaks, Stephen feels as if Father Arnall is actually talking to him. Additionally Father Arnall uses a rich, passionate imagery in his sermons; Stephen can vividly imagine the battle between good and evil when he listens to them. The sermons move him for psychological reasons as well. Stephen sins and lets his mind wander from his calling, and while he enjoys these transgressions, he also struggles with guilt over them. Finally the sermons represent a kind of fatherly discipline Stephen did not receive from his own dissipated, distracted father, and he is drawn to them to fill this void.

How does Joyce develop the conflict between Catholicism and a secular life in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Joyce develops the conflict between Catholicism and a secular life by showing Stephen experiencing both in extreme measures within a short time frame. Rather than simply observing the tenets of the Catholic faith, Stephen's intellect drives him to pursue the priesthood. At the same time he is unable to recognize and repress his sexual urges. Instead he overindulges with prostitutes and debases himself in the process. As a result of that debasement, Stephen feels tremendous guilt, which he relieves to some degree through confession. The link between the two feelings—religious ecstasy and sexual desire—will ultimately lead to Stephen's decision not to become a priest.

How does Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man reconcile his lapsed Catholicism with his desire to be an artist?

By the end of the novel Stephen has become a lapsed Catholic, no longer going to confession or taking communion, having dedicated his spirit to artistic pursuits. As Stephen moves further away from his decision to not answer the call of the Catholic Church, the novel instead gives the impression Stephen has found a way to maintain some of the crucial aspects of Catholicism—he maintains some sense of morality, and he sees a relationship between sin and atonement—without continuing to participate in its establishment, doctrine, and rules. He does shun the Church establishment as corrupt, and harmful to the Irish people. Rather than considering himself a Protestant, though, Stephen probably can be more accurately classified as an agnostic, given that the agnostic viewpoint claims neither faith in nor disbelief of God.

What aspects of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man establish it as a bildingsroman, or coming-of-age novel?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be categorized as a bildingsroman because the reader is given finely observed details on how the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, grows from a small boy, to a young adult, and then into an adult. It includes his thoughts and feelings and describes the pressures that shape him into a young man. For example he grows from not understanding a Christmas dinner political argument to a man easily able to defend his unique definition of aesthetics using arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. By the end of the novel Stephen decides that the pulls of his Irish heritage will hinder his artistic progress, so he chooses to live in exile. In a spiritual sense he grows up, too: he develops from a curious young boy, sensitive to the world around him and anxious to follow the rules of the church, into an artist who finds in all of life, spiritual or of the body, material to create his art. There are rites of passage here as well, from finding his own way with bullies, to climbing out of a fetid ditch, to seeking justice after the wrongly administered beatings of his hands. He knows himself well enough to take a lead in Belvedere's play and become that character. Stephen develops the ability to grapple with social pressures, as his later indifference keeps him at a distance from his college friends. Finally, embarrassed by his family as they sink into dire poverty, he grows away from them.

How does Joyce use metaphors to establish Stephen's identity in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Joyce uses metaphors in many places to show Stephen's growth as an artist. The sounds of words are important to Stephen, so Joyce uses short songs throughout the book as marks of Stephen's "ear" for the Irish language. At one point he states the artist should be removed and "indifferent, paring his fingernails." Here Joyce suggests that the artwork itself should be such a factor in an artist's life that he can appear distanced when he is not. When he has the epiphany at the sea edge, having seen the essence of beauty, Stephen describes himself as having been pulled from a tomb: "His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her graveclothes ... He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul." In another example when Stephen says he wants to "forge ... the uncreated conscience of my race," he calls upon his patron, Daedalus, to stand by his side.

What aspects of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man mark it as a classic modernist text?

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is modernist in its use of the stream-of-consciousness style, in which the narrative is carried by the flow and process of the speaker's mental patterns rather than by a chronological plot. Throughout the book readers are taken deep into Stephen's mental wanderings, yet Joyce provides the connections necessary to maintain continuity. Additionally, the book can seem on first reading as highly fragmented; impressions are collaged against other impressions, finally forming a grander picture. Joyce uses different forms of text to convey his message: Latin, fragments of poetry, schoolboy chants, memorized hymns, notes in textbooks, and finally a series of diary entries. However, Joyce is a master at modern structure and provides repetition and scaffolding to help the reader construct meaning from the text.

In what ways is reading important to Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

For Stephen reading serves several purposes. It is first a means of escape from a world he often finds somewhat off-putting. It is also a source of inspiration for his own work; when he writes he often thinks about other writers' work, and this empowers him. Reading adds to his understanding of his role in the world, in that he uses the points of view of other writers to refine his own voice. As a superior and constant reader, Stephen is the top student in his classes. This slowly works to improve his relationships with others; he gains intellectual power as he grows up. Reading, and specifically reading works of philosophy, religious theory, and literature, also represents his development into an artist who has found his own way through the great thinkers of the past.

What is the significance of Dublin in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

In the literal sense Dublin is a refuge where Stephen's family can find a home after losing the family house in Chapter 2—an action necessitated by Simon's general incompetence. For the family Dublin symbolizes a move from peace to strife, from relative comfort to a sea of uncertainty and risk. For Stephen personally Dublin represents a place that can offer him deeper insight into a larger world, and a place where, as he ages, he can seek anonymous activity, such as visiting prostitutes. Dublin also houses the university that Stephen attends, with students from backgrounds, accents, and turns of phrase much different from his. He learns from these encounters with others of vastly differing views, and refines his artistic life by honing it against the set ways of the university.

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